This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 6:27–38:
Jesus said to his disciples:
“To you who hear I say, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. To the person who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other one as well, and from the person who takes your cloak, do not withhold even your tunic. Give to everyone who asks of you, and from the one who takes what is yours do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you. For if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do the same. If you lend money to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, and get back the same amount. But rather, love your enemies and do good to them, and lend expecting nothing back; then your reward will be great and you will be children of the Most High, for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
“Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven. Give and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap. For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you.”
In the previous weeks in ordinary time, we have heard Luke’s Gospel of the Sermon on the Mount. “Blessed are the meek,” Jesus instructs in the Beatitudes, but who are the meek? What precisely is “meekness”? Our first reading from 1 Samuel demonstrates precisely what Jesus meant.
In this passage, David is on the run from Saul, who sees his former protege as a threat. The king leads an army of three thousand men into the desert of Ziph to kill David, but apparently they have a problem with what we’d now call “operational security.” The scriptures tell us that David and his lieutenant Abishai managed to creep their way into Saul’s tent when all were asleep and had the perfect opportunity to kill them — a legitimate act of war under the circumstances.
Consider the power at David’s hands at that moment. He had his avowed enemy defenseless, with a spear at hand to finish him off. As the persecuted one, David had every right to end the war between them at that moment, as well as the means and the opportunity. Abishai even offers to commit the deed himself so as to keep David from having to do it.
What David does next is extraordinary. Rather than deliver judgment himself, he bows to the authority of the Lord. “Do not harm him,” David tells Abishai, “for who can lay hands on the Lord’s anointed and remain unpunished?” Instead, David takes Saul’s spear and his water jug and retreats to a nearby hilltop to let Saul’s troops know what had taken place, and to send this message to Saul: “Today, though the LORD delivered you into my grasp, I would not harm the LORD’s anointed.”
This is what Jesus means by “meekness.” It is not powerlessness nor surrender per se, but rather the deliberate and contemplative abnegation from seeking or imposing justice on another, especially worldly justice. David had the power, the means, and the opportunity to impose justice on Saul for waging war on him. Instead, he allowed Saul to live and to have the opportunity to redeem himself as the Lord’s anointed. Ultimately Saul failed to do so and met his fate, but through his own hand rather than David’s.
This is an early example of loving one’s enemy, and especially on behalf of the Lord. It would have been an especially powerful example in the days and area in which Jesus preached, too. The Judeans were captive to the Roman empire and felt the sting of that conquest daily. From the soldiers in the streets to the tax collectors who robbed them and all the way to the temple authorities which collaborated with the Romans, they had no end of enemies from which they prayed for deliverance — or on whom to wreak some revenge.
Displaying meekness was probably low on their list of potential responses to their oppression. However, Jesus’ call was not to forgive and forget, to surrender, or worst of all to assimilate into the oppressing culture. It was a call to remind the Israelites of their lost mission — to serve as a nation of priests and prophets to the world. The Lord chose this people to bring His law to all the nations so that they too may have an opportunity for salvation.
In other words, far from being a call to passivity and surrender, Jesus called His disciples to active conversion by becoming vessels of God’s love for all. Loving only those who already love us is hardly the stuff of conversions; as Jesus points out, “even sinners love those who love them.” That is the basis of fallen human relations, a form of love that is transactional rather than self-giving and merciful, as is God’s love. One is self-interested, while the other is transcendent — especially when the means and opportunity for worldly justice is at hand but put aside.
Paul alludes to the difference between the two forms in his first letter to the Corinthians. The first Adam, Paul writes, “became a living being, the last Adam a life-giving spirit.” The first Adam brought the fall, and with it the selfishness and sin that requires systems of justice of various kinds to arise. The “last Adam” brought salvation and an escape from that by proclaiming and then modeling the caritas of God’s love. Furthermore, Paul preaches that we will eventually bear both images in salvation: “Just as we have borne the image of the earthly one, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly one.”
This teaching may be extremely difficult under our present systems of liberty and justice; imagine what it meant to the people hearing Jesus and Paul preach. Yet it is the meekness that sees God’s anointing in each and every one of His children that models salvation, and eventually converts most “enemies” into brothers and sisters. That is not passivity, but instead becoming warriors for the Lord in love and mercy. And when we all meet in God’s love after this life, it will mean we will have so many more to celebrate it with us.
The front-page image is a detail from “The Sermon on the Mount” by Jan Brueghel the Elder, 1598. Currently on display at the Getty Center, via Wikimedia Commons.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.